Reporters' White House Access

President Bush looks out the window of Air Force One inspecting damage from Hurricane Katrina while flying over New Orleans en route back to the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This week it's CBS News Radio correspondent Peter Maer's turn to answer viewer mail to The White House Booth.
What access does the "Booth" have to the rank & file, career functionaries working in the White House? Are you confined to that small cupboard?
Sherman Ross

Thanks for your interest in White House access, Sherman. Certain TV dramas about the White House convey the false impression that reporters can freely walk into the offices of senior presidential advisors. Geographically speaking, we are barred from moving very far from our work area. Reporters have access to "the Lower Press Office" where two deputy press secretaries work. We can also walk up a West Wing ramp to the office of the Press Secretary. Telephone and e-mail contacts are often the best way to communicate with other officials.

The more direct response to your question depends on the definition of "functionaries." This White House has the tightest access control of any administration I've covered and I've been here since the second Reagan term. "Rank and file" Bush administration staffers usually avoid any contact with reporters. I've even seen some head the other way in chance encounters with journalists. Some officials will speak to us "on background," meaning their names can not be used in our stories. Of course we want to fully identify our sources but we will agree to the "background" rule in order to obtain as much information as we can.

As part of a tight message control, the Bush White House does have a few "designated hitters" who speak on the record with reporters. It confines that kind of access to presidential counselor Dan Bartlett and a few others. The policy is a big shift from past administrations that offered frequent background briefings with top officials who helped reporters and their readers and audiences understand the rationale for decisions and strategies. During the first Bush administration, I recall attending many briefings on the then Soviet Union with a young National Security Council Kremlin expert named Condoleezza Rice.

Why did the press corps give the President a pass on so many issues at his last press conference? Instead of asking him questions about the war, the economy, cronyism, etc., the press corps asked him such questions pertaining to steroids in baseball. Really now, it seems that there are many more important issues than those being pursued by the press corps.
Frank K. Ploener

Why are you guys immediately hostile to President Bush?? I've been following politics longer than most of you have been alive, and I never remember such open hostility toward a sitting President. During the Clinton years you guys just about bent over to be, shall I say, delicate in your questioning.
Jane Mastan

Frank and Jane: I've taken the liberty of folding your two questions together because they reflect e-mails and other correspondence that I and other reporters receive.

Presidential critics complain that we're too easy on George W. Bush. Supporters contend we're too hard on him. I received the same type of mail at the height of the Clinton scandals. Some cynics would be tempted to say that if the mail to reporters is evenly divided on both sides of the argument, we must be doing our job! I sincerely believe that people who feel strongly one way or the other about politicians tend to view coverage through their own magnifying glass.

I'd think it's a significant security breach for a non-reporter (and gay porn star) to attend White House press conferences and serve as a friendly plant at such conferences. I have nothing against gay porn stars per se — but how did one make it past the White House gates and why have the MSM let this story drop? Who let Gannon into the WH and what was the quid pro quo in this case?

I disagree that the MSM dropped the story of James Guckert, the man who wrote under the name "Jeff Gannon." The story and his background were reported extensively last year. (For background on the "Gannon file," check out a fine article that CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch wrote for on February 18, 2005.)

How much fuel has the president used going back and forth to the coast? He should have gone immediately after Katrina and I can fully understand going to Texas to look things over, but 8 times !!!!!!! Looks more like he wants publicity. This is my opinion, what do you think?

You can do the math. The Air Force estimates that fuel costs for the presidential 747 come to $6,029 per hour. Of course, Air Force One is not the only fuel consumer on presidential trips. The military's so-called "car plane," a huge transport, is used to ferry a "secure package" of motorcade vehicles including the presidential limousine and a fleet of SUVs to the site of every visit. Other motorcade vehicles including press and staff vans are usually rented from local vendors. Helicopters from the Marine One presidential fleet are often deployed. A press charter aircraft carries reporters whose news organizations pay the tab. It all adds up to a gas-guzzling operation. Despite a recent presidential energy-saving directive, vehicles assigned to the White House and other Executive Branch agencies can be seen with engines idling near the White House and other federal buildings every day. That's the nuts and bolts response to your question, Wilma.

As for your political angle, critics always contend that presidents, the current chief executive and others, overuse Air Force One. Supporters always insist the president must travel for first hand looks at disasters. That's the case the Bush White House has been making since its initial slow response to the latest disasters that turned into a public relations disaster for the president. Over the years, criticism of presidential flying habits has had little traction with the public. People apparently realize that presidents can't take commercial flights and that their comfort and security are expensive.

P.S. Reporters traveling on Air Force One rarely see President Bush in flight. While Bill Clinton and the current president's father often came to the press section to chat with journalists, George W. Bush usually avoids the rear compartment of the 747.

Keep your letters coming.
Peter Maer